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NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 3

Thursday is usually the most intense day—it’s the designated time for everyone to be off book, i.e., memorized. But today—Wednesday, usually a frolic in the sandbox—turned out to be a strenuous day of contact sports. Some of this had to do with the schedule: Marco was to join us in the afternoon, but he could only get there at 3:40. It was our last coaching day with him—yes, he’ll be back for more rehearsals and he’ll play the performances with us, but then he’ll be in his role purely as flautist. So we had a lot to cover in a short period, and that meant the day ended with three hours of extremely concentrated work on all the flute stuff and all the Spanish stuff.

Christine created a bit of magic today, the kind of thing that can only happen at a place like Caramoor. We were working on her Lecuona song, “Quiero ser hombre.” It is somewhere midway between a cabaret song and an art song, with a poem by the Uruguayan feminist Juana de Ibarbourou. She talks of how she’d like to be a man—so that she could have any kind of career she wanted, she could go out walking on her own, she could wander the earth as she pleased. Latin American women did not have a lot of choices in the 1940s, and very little freedom of movement in those pre-liberation days.

unnamed-6Christine has known the song for a little while now, and it was sounding good. She understood what it meant, her Spanish was very clear and amazingly authentic—good, solid work. But Michael was not sold. “Christine, the song has this descending figure, three-note groups that snake down after an upward phrase. There’s something…what’s the word for it…it has a name…oh, I don’t know. There’s something about that kind of writing…” I was a little puzzled. So was Christine. What was he getting at? “How should I do it?” Christine asked. Michael paused. “Actually, I don’t know. But you do. Figure it out—there is something to dig out of that phrase. You have the answer, not me. Go find it.” Another pause. Then Christine said something I wasn’t expecting: “Thank you.” What did she mean, I wondered? Thank you, I guessed, for not condescending to me, for trusting that I have a musical brain, that I have instincts and sensitivities of my own. It was International Women’s Day, and we were celebrating in our way.

Michael’s request was not the kind of direction I would have given a singer. But something happened: the whole song opened up. All of a sudden Christine was singing about life, and freedom, and being a woman, and wanting something. What sounded to me like musical nit-picking led straight to the Holy Grail. Everyone felt it. Hannah actually leapt to her feet and applauded. I thought I saw tears in Christine’s eyes.

Everyone, in fact, rehearsed as if their lives depended on it. I took the day to get closer to pianist Ho Jae Kim, pulling him in to play four-hand piano with me, molding his phrasing, balancing the sonorities of his two hands. He is such a surprising musician. I imagine all this material is pretty new for him, but I nicknamed him Ho Jae O’Lee after he played his Irish song with the eloquence of an old bard. He’s come up with some fabulous results in Cuban music too. Ho Jae has a tremendous musical instinct, and when his ear, nervous system, and hands coalesce—when he grasps what the music is, what it needs—the results take my breath away.

Get your tickets to Four Islands today!  Sunday, March 12, 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tuesday, March 14, 8pm at Merkin Concert Hall (NYC)

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 2

Tuesday is traditionally the most carefree play-day at Caramoor. The Sunday concert still seems a long way off, memorization is not making everyone into zombies, and we can still do some real exploration with the singers and the songs. Michael and I have a sense of what we’d like our cast to get out of the week’s project, and there seems to be just enough time. It’s like working with plaster of Paris: there is a certain window when the materials are malleable before they harden for good. We seized the day, all of us.

Our second guest coach was with us, the Venezuelan flautist Marco Granados. As Michael said to me, “Marco has to be the sweetest man on the planet. After your husband Jimmy, of course.” It is true: Marco radiates warmth and generosity even when a patron seated next to him at lunch is saying, “I think Trump has some awfully good ideas, don’t you?” I dropped my head into my lunch plate and studied my roasted potatoes very, very hard, but Marco remained gentle and pliant. I was so glad he fielded that question. I believe his answer was some vowel-less murmur (“Mmnnh!”) that could be interpreted anyway you liked.

Marco is doing double duty with us, playing in the Ravel cycle “Chansons madécasses” and some of the Irish songs, while also stepping up to the plate as our Spanish coach. No one in our cast speaks Spanish, and most classical singers don’t have to deal with Iberian, South American, or Caribbean music until they get a gig with NYFOS. The Cuban scores are badly printed, with arcane handwritten lyrics that make “adorable” look like “adorabla” and “sabe” look like “saba,” while turning poetic lines into traffic jams of cluttered letters. For some reason I was most concerned about Ben Dickerson, to whom I gave anAfro-Cuban piece written in street slang. Ben is very cultured and internal, the kind of guy you want to hear in Vaughan Williams or Poulenc or Pizzetti. I didn’t know if he could ace the piece but I thought, well, it’s just one song and it’ll be good for him.

That turned out to be the understatement of the day. Ben is such a strong musician and so smart that he got the essence of “Tú no sab’ ingle” pretty much on the first reading. He needs a little encouragement to realize the full brattiness, the cojones, of the song. He may not lead with his hips like a Cuban, but that Vermont boy can definitely swing with the best of them.

Everyone shone today—Hannah Dishman radiated feisty heat as both an Irish country lass and a frustrated music theater wannabe; Jack Swanson figured out how to be a narcissistic Latin lover in one piece and a creepy Manhattan voyeur in another; and Christine Price raised the roof with Kurt Weill and seduced everyone in sight with her Corigliano songs. Ho Jae Lee and I improvised four-hand arrangements (that guy is a trip!). But the highlight for me was the Zulu folk song, which I had been avoiding for no real reason. It’s short—two pages—and not complicated. But I feel irrationally daunted when I have to make vocal arrangements, even though I do it all the time and usually come up with something good. After lunch we plunged in—Jack, Christine, Hannah, Marco, and I—and I think we came up with something exotic and haunting. We can keep developing it, but the bones are there—one voice leading to harmony and finally erupting with Marcos’ bird calls on his flute. Are we ready for the soundtrack of a documentary about Madagascar? Ask me tomorrow.

unnamed-5 In the photo: Jack Swanson and Marco Granados search for the “fuego sagrado.”

Get your tickets to Four Islands today!  Sunday, March 12, 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tuesday, March 14, 8pm at Merkin Concert Hall (NYC)

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