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Stephen Sondheim: Move On

Dear Friends,

Happy Friday! What a week it has been. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to share my thoughts and some of my favorite songs with you. I’ve learned a lot from the experience and am grateful to you for spending the time with me. Today, I’d like to bring us full circle by returning to Stephen Sondheim and declaring our Song of the Day: “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George.

With music and lyrics by Sondheim and a beautiful book by James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George opened on Broadway in 1984 and has been revived several times since (you can currently catch it at the Hudson Theater and I hear it’s fantastic!). The musical was inspired by George Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The show weaves a fictional tale of Seurat’s life and the process of creating the aforementioned painting, and is a beautiful expression of the artist’s struggle to be relevant and heard. It eloquently captures the all consuming nature of artistic life and the price one pays in pursuit of perfection. It constantly asks the question: What is your Art worth? In truth, one’s art is so connected to one’s self that the subtext of this question (What are You worth?) is equally as difficult to answer. In my mind, the constant conflict of trying to do right by those around you while serving a higher artistic calling is what makes the piece so universally relatable. One does not have to be artistically inclined to understand such a paradox, and perhaps it is this common denominator that makes the musical so timeless.

“Move On” is the eleven o’clock number in which George’s former lover and muse, Dot, appears to him in a vision and offers some much needed guidance. The two lyrics that resonate most deeply with me are:

“Look at what you want,
Not at where you are,
Not at what you’ll be.”

And,

“Anything you do,
Let it come from you
Then it will be new.
Give us more to see.”

Over the years this advice has brought me much courage and comfort. I’ve chosen to share a more mature snapshot of the show’s original actors, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, revisiting their roles of George and Dot. The love, wisdom, and nostalgia in their eyes gets me weepy every time and I instantly feel that spark of creation being fanned within my soul after viewing.

Readers, I hope you all had a wonderful week, but for the days when the universe is less than kind I leave you with this Song of the Day “Move On”. May it lift you up and set your eyes on the horizon. Thank you again for being here, my Friends. I hope to see you on April 19th for our Sondheim Celebration! Until then…   XO-M

Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now

Hello Reader-pals,

Today I’m all about multitasking. Our time together is nearing an end, yet I feel there is still so much amazing music I want to share with you! While contemplating my penultimate song selection I struggled to settle on a single artist. Thankfully, I came across my most beloved Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now and inspiration struck.

Now, Joni Mitchell is one of my top five favorite singer/songwriters. Her lyrics and ethereal soprano (later turned haunting contralto) sound have always resonated deeply with me. She has lead an interesting and diverse career spanning the genres of folk, pop, and jazz. Perhaps it is this chameleon-like flexibility that has made her songs so ripe for reinterpretation by other artists. Therein lies the inspiration Readers: we don’t have to settle for a single version of this fantastic song.

Mitchell wrote Both Sides Now in 1967 and while she would later record the song herself, it was premiered by Judy Collins (which earned Collins a 1968 Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance). Since then, the song has been covered hundreds of times by a vast array of artists: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Robert Goulet, Dianne Reeves, Herbie Hancock, Doris Day, Sara Bareilles, and most surprising to me, Leonard Nimoy…just to name a few (one song of the day, twelve hyperlinked videos and counting…See? Multitasking!). I am amazed by how each version differs from the next. It just goes to show that with a solid song as your foundation the possibilities are limitless. Even Joni herself took this to heart when she re-recorded the song later in life, opting for lush orchestrations that add weight and perspective to the years lived since writing the piece.

With so many amazing renditions out there, it is (clearly) hard to pin down a favorite for our Song of the Day. Luckily, one of my favorite humans has put his spin on it, making my life a little easier. Casey Breves is a dear friend and so incredibly talented that often my husband and I don’t refer to him as human at all, but as an Alien. Let me explain. See, we have this list of friends whose talent we find to be so unbelievably limitless that we’ve put them in the distinguished category of “Aliens.” They are so good, it can’t be humanly possible. It’s an inside joke, but is certainly no laughing matter. Casey’s voice is capable of incredible things. Born and raised in New York City, Casey studied at Yale where he engaged in an array of performances from opera to a capella. After graduating he joined the Grammy Award winning ensemble, Chanticleer singing in the Soprano section for three seasons. He then went on to pursue a career as a solo recording artist and has produced a diverse collection of original material and covers (several of which have gone viral on YouTube). I’m constantly impressed by his musicianship and creativity. Seriously, who thinks to combine French song with Adele? Casey, that’s who. I couldn’t dream of ending my week on this blog without sharing his immense gift with you.

Reader, I sincerely hope you enjoy Casey’s simple and honest delivery of this beautiful song. Thank you again for stopping by for this Thursday’s edition of Song of the Day. Fingers crossed, I haven’t thrown too much material at you, but if you’re anything like me there are always a dozen open tabs on the web browser anyways! Multitasking at it’s finest. Juggle on, my friends.  XO-M

Lake Street Dive: Bad Self Portraits

Hiya Folks,

Wednesdays, am I right? Humpday. Notoriously sluggish and reminiscent of pushing a two ton boulder up a steep hill in 98 degree heat. The weekend is still a hazy finish line miles from where you stand. Optimists might try to chime in with, “But Wednesday means the work week is half over!” If I’ve consumed the appropriate amount of caffeine I can usually muster a polite smile or chuckle, but heaven help them if they try to hit me with that glass half full nonsense before noon… Shade. Will. Be. Thrown. I find the best way to fight the Wednesday doldrums (that doesn’t involve day drinking) is with music, which brings me to our Song of the Day: Bad Self Portraits by Lake Street Dive.

I have so much respect for Lake Street Dive. My introduction to them was via their cover of Jackson 5’s I Want You Back which went viral in 2012 (check it out: it’s fantastic!). I was struck by Rachel Price’s colorful, flexible vocals, instantly became a fan and have followed them ever since. In addition to Rachel, the band is made up of Bridget Kearney on upright bass, Mike Calabrese on drums, and Mike “McDuck” Olson on trumpet and guitar. Whenever I need that extra lift in my step (whether at the gym or trying to get excited about an early morning audition), their unique sound pumping through my earbuds helps me feel ready to tackle anything.

In truth, most of their tunes are worthy of highlighting today.  However, when I open my spotify artist library, the tune I gravitate towards first is usually Bad Self Portraits. It has that perfect beat that puts a Top-Model power strut in my step.  On first listen one might find the lyrics are a little sad, but I find them empowering. For me, it’s the story of a person whose life took an unexpected turn, but they were determined to make something of what they’re left with. The classic lemons to lemonade theory (I may throw shade at the optimist before noon, but at heart I’m a silver lining kind of gal!).

Just as the lyrics of Bad Self Portraits are open to interpretation, so too is the definition of Lake Street Dive’s musical sound. When asked to describe their style, the band says they strive to sound like “the Beatles and Motown had a party together.” The result is a sound that falls somewhere between popular and swing era jazz (with the slightest hint of classic Patsy Cline-esque country on songs like So Long).  But whatever the style, their New England Conservatory training shows in their fierce chops and classy musicianship.

That may be the thing I love most about Lake Street Dive. Those chops shine just as brightly live, making their concerts equally, if not more, impressive than their discography. So often I fall for a band and shell out big bucks to see them perform, only to be seriously disappointed. They’re merely a product of a talented producer/sound engineer. Not Lake Street Dive. I recently attended their show at Music Hall of Williamsburg and was on cloud nine for weeks from the experience. The concert was inspiring and made me hungry to find ways to bring the same authenticity and abandon I witnessed into my own work. These guys rock and I hope their path to success leads onward and upward. I can’t emphasize it enough: check them out!

In any case Reader, thanks for sticking with me through what is debatably the crankiest day of the week. You’re a champ. You got this. Wednesday is no match for you…and should you need a little extra TLC, I hope this tune will help you turn it around!  XO-M

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul: In Short

Hi Readers,

Back for more then? Thanks! Before we get to the Song of the Day, let’s talk about the Youtube Rabbit Hole Effect. You’re probably not familiar with the term (because I made it up), but you’ve definitely experienced the phenomenon. Things start innocently enough. You click on that intriguing video your friend posted to Facebook, or perhaps you went directly to Youtube to watch that hilarious cat video to brighten your morning…either way the ending is the same. One video leads to the next and before you know it, you look up from your device to find the sun is setting.  You’re left wondering how you became so easily distracted and how on Earth you missed lunch! Call me Alice, but I love falling down the Rabbit Hole. From an artistic perspective, Youtube is a fantastic study tool for artists and an incredible platform for self-creative types. I have found some truly interesting material hiding in Youtube obscurity. So, when time permits I sit down at my computer with a pot of tea, pick a subject, and let myself tumble down.

One day while following the Rabbit (have I killed this metaphor yet?), I discovered In Short from the song cycle Edges. What makes this piece Song of the Day worthy? Well, I keep a mental checklist of qualifications a song must fulfill for me to get excited: Do I connect to this emotionally? Does it suit my voice? And WWSBS (What Would Steven Blier Say)? I award extra points if the song is up-tempo and/or funny (a rarity in the soprano repertoire). Though I’ve admittedly never shown the song to Steve, I like to think that he’d find it as amusing as I do and give it his blessing.

Edges was composed by the songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. You may recognize them from their recent Oscar win for best original song (City of Stars from La La Land), or from their currently running Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. Edges predates both those accomplishments but is just as deserving of your time and attention. Though often performed as a musical, Pasek and Paul describe the piece as “a song cycle that confronts the trials and tribulations of moving into adulthood and examines the search for love, commitment and meaning.” They wrote the piece together as 19-year old college students in 2005, and in 2006 the duo was awarded the Jonathan Larson Award for up and coming composers. In many ways their work reminds me of Sondheim, displaying a conversational lyricism ripe with storytelling and imbued with a distinct musical voice.

So have a listen and I hope you enjoy Whitney Bashor’s fabulous rendition of In Short. Disclaimer: the language gets a little colorful at times, but any tune that manages to have the words “Get dysentery!” stuck in my head is a Rabbit Hole gem to be shared.  XO—M


PS—How incredible is Whitney Bashor?! Whitney, if you ever read this call me for coffee sometime. You’re my hero.

Stephen Sondheim: So Many People

Dear Reader,

So it looks like you’re stuck with me for the next five days. I for one can’t wait to share some tunes with you and offer a bit of insight into my musical mind…or at the very least my spotify library. Let’s jump right in together!

My song for you today is So Many People from Sondheim’s Saturday Night. I love Sondheim. His prowess as a composer and lyricist makes him, in my mind, one of the most influential and important artists of the last century. His words are a masterclass in storytelling and his music, while simple sounding to the ear, is often incredibly complex.

Completed when he was just 23 years old, Saturday Night tells the tale of a group of friends in Brooklyn getting together on the weekends and weighing their dreams of Manhattan with the comfort of home. The piece is considered Sondheim’s first musical and was scheduled to open in 1954 on Broadway, but was cancelled due to the death of its producer, Lemuel Ayers. Saturday Night would remain unproduced until 1997, and had to wait until 2000 for its New York City premiere Off Broadway. Sondheim’s remarks after seeing the piece on it’s feet makes him all the more endearing to me. He said, “I don’t have any emotional reaction to Saturday Night at all —except fondness…There are some things that embarrass me so much in the lyrics—the missed accents, the obvious jokes. But I decided, leave it. It’s my baby pictures. You don’t touch up a baby picture—you’re a baby!”

Why this song then? Well, my love for this piece is two fold. So Many People was among the first of many incredible songs Steve Blier would introduce to me in our decade of collaboration and friendship. We were doing a program of Rodgers, Sondheim, and Guettel and my knowledge of Sondheim at the time was slim. Steve sent me home to learn So Many People and my heart just melted. I found it to be one of the most romantic sentiments ever written.

I thought the man for me must have a castle.
A man of means he’d be, a man of fame.
And then I met a man who hadn’t any.
Without a penny to his name.
I had to go and fall for so much less than
what I’d planned from all the magazines.
I should be good and sore.
What am I happy for?
I guess the man means more than the means.

I grew up hearing conventional New England wisdom like, “Remember, it is just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor one!”…so these lyrics prioritizing happiness held special appeal. Fast forward a few years to a date with my now-husband rather early in our relationship. A beautiful singer, actor, and pianist in his own right much of our early courtship was spent sharing songs with one another at the piano (a common music nerd mating ritual). “I have to show you my favorite Sondheim song!” I squealed. And so I sang So Many People for him—to him really, and I poured my whole heart into it— laying the charm on thick because, duh this guy was for keeps! We finished. He was silent. I thought I’d rendered him speechless with my romantic gesture when he sweetly said, “I’m not sure how to feel about that song… should I be offended?” Oops. For me the song said, “Your love outweighs all material things”…but what he heard was “Damnit, why did I fall for this schmuck!?” Thankfully, I still got the guy…but here’s hoping you’ll see it from my perspective and fall for the song as I did.  XO—M

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tghl-_Qbqrg

Blier’s Blog: August 24, 2013 / NYFOS@NorthFork

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.

Blier’s Blog: August 26, 2013 / NYFOS@NorthFork

I am pleased to report that we had a great success yesterday–the real deal, not just a rosy blog report. Something quite astounding happened in the hall, the thing I most wanted but was aftraid to hope for. No, I was not surprised that the concert went well, nor that the hall was full. I knew we had class-A singers and wonderful songs, and that we’d gotten to capacity on pre-sale and reservations. And the cast was on fire yesterday, everyone at his/her peak (and beyond). But there was a kind of electricity in the place that I don’t always feel even when performances are going like gangbusters. The public’s receptivity to the music was palpable to me, as was their excitement at hearing such beautiful voices in their town—up close and personal. They were a dream audience, making every connection, grooving out on the words and music, and gorging themselves on the artistic smorgasbord. I feared the inevitable comparisons with past programs I’d done here, but the consistent comment was, “What a great group! But you always have the best singers.”

When I play in big metropolitan concert halls, especially in New York, I often feel I am trying to feed people who are already sated. I’ve got to give them the equivalent of a truffle-asiago-crab stuffed gnocchi doused with saffron-infused olive oil, or I don’t even get their attention. Years of playing in the Big Apple have forced me to up the ante year by year, so I habitually aim pretty high and am rough on myself when I feel I have not quite grabbed the gold ring.

But this audience, many of who are actually Manhattanites during the cold months, received the music in a way I have not experienced in some time. At the intermission, a friend came up to me and said, “This is hitting me so hard. I’m just so moved by the music, I’ve been crying—and laughing—and I feel as if I need to go home now just to recover.” “But….you won’t do that, will you? I mean, you’d miss the Cuban songs,” I stammered. “No, of course I’m staying! What I mean is…I needed this music, and I had no idea how deeply I needed it.”

I too had felt that Orient “needed” music, but I didn’t realize how much. It turns out that the people in this town are starving for concerts. On the way home, a woman saw me driving down the street in my wheelchair and said, “WAIT! Stay there—I’ll be RIGHT back!” She went back into her house and came out with a chilled bottle of champagne. She tore across the street and gave me the gift. Then she got quite emotional. “I want you to have this. The thing is…you’re the reason people want to be alive.”

Blier’s Blog: August 23, 2013 / NYFOS@NorthFork

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.

Blier’s Blog: August 22, 2013 / NYFOS@NorthFork

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.

Blier’s Blog: August 21, 2013 / NYFOS@NorthFork

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.

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